How I write about Arizona impacts how I write about the world

Sometimes I can’t believe I’ve lived in Phoenix for 30 years. That’s 30 years of wiping sweat from my brow and sand from my eyes. Thirty years of being surrounded by nothing but cacti and sagebrush. Thirty years of donning my cowboy hat and boots … Whoa there, pardner. Those images of life in the American Southwest suffer from a dusty case of over-sweeping generalizations.

Obviously, being an Arizonan has become a strong part of my identity. In previous blogs, I’ve recounted visits to museums that have helped me make connections to my still-forming sense of self.  At one museum, I’ve looked at the pursuit and preservation of identity among Native Americans of the Southwest, and at another museum, I’ve explored cross-cultural connections between the Irish and Jews like myself. In addition, another museum has helped me realize how strongly I identify with my father’s multiple stories as an immigrant and musician. But this website would be lacking without the Arizona facet of my identity formation.

This week in my travel writing class, as we study transculturation and the potential to be agents of change, I would like to think that blogging gives me agency to change perceptions about the Arizona side of me.

True, I’m always happy to share my knowledge of Arizona, cultivated from many years here. It pleases me when someone from outside the state or outside the country is curious about our cities, landscape, economy, culture and politics. Just the other day, a young woman I met who was visiting from London was dying to know how Phoenix residents can stand “43 bloody degrees” — that translates to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I gladly gave a quick primer on how to be a desert rat.

Beeler @ Desert Caballeros
The Joe Beeler bronze “Thanks for the Rain,” at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum. Photo by Deborah Ross.

It was the kind of conversation that I hope  dispelled misconceptions. Well-known travel writer Rick Steves, in a video called “Travel as a Political Act,” says the exchange of ideas and information between two people from two different parts of the world is one of the most powerful aspects of international travel. All it takes is a higher level of engagement and intellect at each stop along the way, and a realization that every region and every country has certain issues — Steves calls it “baggage” — that contribute to its character. Be open-minded and stop to look and listen, he says.

So, notebook and camera at the ready, I set out to dig deeper into Arizona culture. As Debbie Lisle points out in Engaging the Political: Contemporary Travel Writing and the Ethics of Difference,” the notion of being a self-reflective travel writer means asking yourself, “How am I representing ‘otherness’?” If “otherness,” in my case, is being this weird, heat-loving creature called an Arizonan, then how am I reflecting that to the world? More important, can my travelogue for this next stop in my summer staycation adventure afford me the practice that I need in becoming a well-rounded, politically aware and non-patronizing travel writer?

Desert Caballeros Museum
Exterior of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona.

The Grand Canyon State has a number of wonderful institutions shedding light on the history of this region, but I chose a jewel of a museum in the historic town of Wickenburg, about two hours northwest of Phoenix. I hadn’t been to the Desert Caballeros Western Museum for quite some time, and besides, that day Wickenburg was 10 degrees cooler. The outcome of this pleasant day trip was several good new nuggets of information about Arizona’s diverse inhabitants. As the museum confirmed, we Arizona types can claim a rich heritage.

Here are a few quick highlights, and I suggest allowing about two hours to tour the museum and its adjacent building, the Learning Center. By the way, the museum brochure has a nice tagline: “Experience the Old West, the New West and the Next West.”

One of the largest galleries shows off the DCWM’s extensive collection of Western art, from the golden years of Western landscape painting to contemporary depictions of the desert and its people, represented in paintings and sculpture by both Anglo and Native American artists. The works are a who’s who of notable artists, including Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Albert Bierstadt and Allan Houser.

Did you notice all those artists are male? To my delight, the DCWM currently has an exhibit called “Marjorie Thomas: Arizona Art Pioneer” (through November 27, 2016) that includes a few dozen Thomas paintings and drawings spanning the first half of the 20th century. I found out Thomas was the first artist to establish a studio in Scottsdale, which is now a Southwestern art mecca. Through a conversation with a museum employee, I also learned that Thomas created numerous pieces celebrating horses and mules, partly because she empathized with the work animals’ obsolescence as Arizona industry turned to motorized vehicles and machinery. On a related note, the DCWM hosts an annual “Cowgirl Up!” art show (every spring) featuring all-female artists working in Western themes.

Hall-Monument-to-the-Mules-Irrigation-Project
Marjorie Thomas, “Monument to the Mule,” Private Collection, Courtesy of David Hall Fine Art ©

Sections of the museum are devoted to Wickenburg’s history as a mining town, which went from boom to bust as American demand for gold, silver and copper ran dry. I was intrigued by the “language” of mine bell signals, as depicted in an antique sign. Three bells rung slowly, for instance, meant “hoist me up!” A large display window includes archival photos and documents, drills, core samples, tools and a dynamite case that looked straight out of a “Roadrunner” cartoon.

A temporary exhibit (through October 2, 2016) celebrates the “mother road” of Route 66, especially its impact on Arizona. On display are a couple of vintage cars and several paintings of nostalgic neon motel signs, as well as Route 66 ashtrays, postcards and other bric-a-brac. Listening carefully to a video, I found out that even though the advent of interstate highways spelled the end of several small towns along the route, the highway still holds a mystique for travelers willing to take the time to explore it.

Route 66 @ Desert Caballeros
From “Route 66: Recent Creations, Retro Collections.”

An adjacent building called the Learning Center has displays of Arizona-made quilts, along with an area dedicated to Arizona’s state tie (for real!), the bola tie, which I never knew was derived from boleadora, an Argentine cattle roping tool designed with braided leather.

Perhaps writing about an Arizona heritage museum doesn’t require the same level of introspection about purpose and audience as does writing about little-known cultures of the world, especially those off the beaten path of American and Western travelers. But it’s a start toward having those “meta-conversations” that Lisle recommends. Whenever I next embark on foreign travel — and get out of the desert heat — hopefully I will ask myself not only, “How am I representing ‘otherness’?” but also, “Why am I here?” and “Whom should I talk to?” From these acts of self-reflection, my writing stands a chance of effecting a change in perceptions, regarding whomever and whatever I’m chronicling.

 

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15 thoughts on “How I write about Arizona impacts how I write about the world

  1. Deborah,
    Your title made me think, but I got it. I like your introduction; your voice has a flare of light-heartedness: “brow and sand from my eyes,” “nothing but cacti and sagebrush,” and “Whoa there, pardner.” In your introduction, you answer the question what makes Arizona special, but this time it’s rooted in The Western Museum, which compliments your “cowgirl” tone.

    Nice recap of your previous blogs. Your main point is obvious—Arizona is rich in culture: “Perhaps writing about an Arizona heritage museum doesn’t require the same level of introspection about purpose and audience as does writing about little-known cultures of the world, especially those off the beaten path of American and Western travelers.” It connects well to your research. Also, it is obvious that while you explored and discovered the earlier museums, the Western culture resides in your heart.

    In regard to “otherness,” you state, “How am I representing ‘otherness’?” If “otherness,” in my case, is being this weird, heat-loving creature called an Arizonan, then how am I reflecting that to the world?” I get your point. And, now I add that your “otherness” also includes all that your previous tours added to your discovery of self.

    I enjoyed your details about the museum and the images are relevant and beautiful, especially the photograph you shot. I am reminded that “revisiting” museums continues to open your eyes to new findings. Your conclusion, referring to your research, gives evidence that you understand the context of the blog. Great job!

    Janise

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Janise. This has been an extraordinary class, and I love that it’s motivated me to revisit museums just out my backdoor. Sometimes I have to go on the defensive when it comes to describing Phoenix and Arizona to people outside the state, but hopefully my blog has opened people’s eyes to the area’s fine sights and diverse qualities. Have a wonderful rest of the summer! – Deborah

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  2. Hi Deborah,
    I really liked this blog entry and how you detail the way which you identify all the parts that make up you. I thought it was insightful and wrapped up the blog entries nicely. I thought the way you tied in Lisle’s essay was especially well done and that you posed the questions she brings up when you go out into the world.
    I really like how you have highlights of the museum and that you give a quick look at each one, but I thought it would helpful if there was something more than just a dash. The first one threw me for a moment and I wasn’t sure if it was a typo until I looked at the rest of the blog. Maybe a bullet point or something else to make it more aesthetic and show where you are deviating from your normal narrative style.
    Thank you for letting in on your travels this summer. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed your entries and wish you luck in all your classes and hope you have a great stay-cation for the rest of the summer.
    Melissa

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  3. Deborah,
    I liked your description.
    The fact the you used the pictures as transitions to separate the changes in your stories was very necessary because there is a lot of interesting information. Also, I liked that you had a link to Rick Stevens’ video clip; it saved a lot searching!
    You anecdotes were very in tune with your story and made it flow nicely.
    I have only one comment. I was raised in Argentina, and the correct spelling is “boleadoras” which were used by the gauchos (argentinian cowboys) when hunting and/or fighting.
    Great job,
    Happy 4th of July!
    Lia

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  4. Hi Deborah!

    I thought your first paragraph was great because of how you described Arizona. It’s great to see the differences in Arizonians. I am from Arizona, as well. I am almost 23 years old and I have lived here my entire life but I don’t own a pair of cowboy boots haha. We can see different cultures and perspectives between those who live in the same place and that’s great. You mention that discussing a museum may not be similar to what travel writers do. I think it is. I think any time we are discussing anything we are able to be introspective and bring about “meta conversations.” Thank you for sharing!

    – Jordan White

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    1. Hi Jordan — I think I might have mentioned on the discussion boards that I lived in England for a year when I was younger. Seriously, the Brits wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat. Too many John Wayne movies!

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  5. Deborah,

    Your title of this week’s blog caught my attention right away. While reading your blog, it made me think about how we view our own lives and geographic location affects how we view and write about the rest of the world. I found your first paragraph very humorous – I’ve only been in Arizona 15 years and I don’t own a cowboy hat or boots!
    Your comments about being in Arizonan and how it becomes part of our identity is so true. I’ve lived in Europe, Asia, and throughout the United States, and my current location always influences how I see others and world events. Like you, I tend to see things from where I am at the time. For example, I was in Germany during the Chernobyl disaster in Russia, and vividly remember tracking the noxious clouds as they made their way across Europe. I don’t think people in the United States were as concerned as we were.
    I also like the way you tied in your previous blog posts into this one. You summarized each one, as well as brought in some of the reading. Your comment from Rick Steves that, “the exchange of ideas and information between two people from two different parts of the world is one of the most powerful aspects of international travel” fit well with your blog. You captured his intent with “be open-minded and stop to look and listen.”
    Your pictures helped summarize all the places that you described in your blog. The details you provided about the museum were very detailed, and your pictures supplemented them well. I felt as if I was visiting the museums and centers with you. Thank you for sharing and have a great rest of the summer!

    Mark

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    1. Thank you, Mark. How interesting that you caught sight of the Chernobyl clouds — that must have been frightening. And you stated the idea of locations and their influence very well. Appreciate your stopping by the blog.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post, Deborah. I thought that your text was extremely successful in entertaining, informing, and capturing. You use a playful voice to show how travelers must be aware of their own assumptions in order to best understand the world, foreign and familiar, around them.
    You were able to find an excellent balance in your narrative between a very relatable, humanistic voice and a wonderful supply of specific information from sources used in this class and that you encountered in your experiences. By providing specific information from credible sources, you allow the reader to input their own interpretations without being overwhelmed by your, the author’s, own. This is similar to the effect of providing dialogue in a text, the benefit of Mikhail Bakhtin argues for across his works. This provides the most honest travel texts possible.
    Further, your writing is not statically informative. You show how your travels have helped you to grow as a person, which is an impetus for others to travel and develop themselves. You also ask important questions of your readers. So, you’re not simply telling a story. Rather, you are presenting factual information, opinion that is clearly identified as your own, and prompts for the readers to consider their own assumptions.
    Your post was a joy to read and leaves me with a lot more to think about. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  7. Deborah,

    Your title really captures the focus of this blog. My favorite line is the “Whoa, there pardner.” It shows your audience how we can easily fall into the trap of assumption that you then go on to challenge. Using bullets for your descriptions of the museum is an interesting approach–and one I might try in my own writing. I seem to come away from my travels with much more content than I can easily fit into my narrative. This might be a way to approach a more diverse cross section. Finally, the way that you caption your photos is always very professional and it is something I continue to notice about your blog, in particular. It’s been great to follow along on your journeys! Take care, Dawn

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  8. Dawn-

    As the others have already said, it was a pleasure to read your writing. You did a great job of weaving both the academic sources and your personal experience together.

    For example, I loved how you took the concepts of transculturation and being an agent of change through the prism of blogging: that as a blogger, you have agency to change perceptions about the Arizona side of you. This was interesting for a couple reasons…First, as a blogger, you are crafting a world around you. You are shaping other’s perceptions of you, and of Arizona. This gives you agency as an active participant in your story, just as any narrative does (think: Adichie’s story about the power of a single story here… https://www.google.com/search?q=power+of+a+single+story&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8). Second, you are reflecting your reality as a blogger while recognizing the meta-narrative that you play a role in. You as a blogger have the capability to reaffirm colonialist perspectives under the guise of cosmopolitan writing, but you have recognized your role in the literary and global tensions between the “cosmopolitan and colonial visions.”

    Thanks again for sharing…really enjoyed your experiences, and I appreciated the effort you made to engage the audience.

    Katrina

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